Readings: Bakewell, Aziz

I feel like I am finally getting my life back. Might even go running today, if all goes well.

existentialistAfter fairly reading-deprived March, I now seem to be devouring books at a steady clip. I have belatedly dived into Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe, which is very very good if you are looking for non-fiction. I find myself drawn to these types of ‘group biographies’, wherein a certain time period or theme is explored through lives of several people. In this case, philosophy and existentialism in particular are explored through lives of people who started the whole wonderful mess: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Karl Jaspers, and a whole host of others. Bakewell does a fantastic job connecting both philosophy and biography elements of the book, so the volume is both a great intro to existentialism and a fascinating look at some interesting lives.

I also finished The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (translation by Elisabeth Jaquette). I have woefully enormous gaps when it comes to Middle Eastern literature, so this is filling some of those. The easy description of it would be 1984 mixed with Arab Spring. This is the kind of book reviewers would describe as ‘chilling’, I suppose. It is firmly in the ‘disturbingly true dystopia’ camp. Something called the Gate appears after a failed uprising. The Gate controls all of citizens’ lives, including their access to doctors and healthcare. One must submit applications to have life-saving surgery (which obviously means one does not get said surgery in time to save life). Mind you, the Gate is never open, and so the action takes place almost entirely in the queue that forms in front of it. It is a rather grim little book, but worth reading. Out May 24th.

Readings: Hill, Faye

Now that I have moved and unpacked all my things, I am trying to get back into some sort of a routine. It’s harder than I thought it would be; for several days I could not even remember what things I used to do before the Month of Anxiety and the End of the World (aka March). What was the last book I read from start to finish?

It seems like I did not do any reading in March at all, but as I think back, I realize I did finish Joe Hill’s The Fireman in two or three days. In retrospect, it wasn’t a wise choice to read when my mental state was already not particularly steady. It’s big and on fire. People already refer to it as Hill’s magnum opus, which I suppose it is, but I don’t think it’s my favorite of his. It is very good, though. I remain a fan of N0S4A2 (as much as its title annoys me). But The Fireman will please you if you like your novels in high gear for many many pages. It’s out in May.

janesteeleAfterwards, a couple of books were picked up and then abandoned after a handful of pages, and then I read a memoir that was fine until it used the ‘t’ word to refer to a certain type of bar. It seems that its author is one of those gay men who remain largely ignorant of the fact that certain terms are no longer kosher to use (see also John Barrowman’s usage of the same word a few months ago).

And then I picked up something I did not expect to like. It did not seem like my type of book at all, but a number of people mentioned it was quite good, so I decided to give it a shot. Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye is definitely delightful, smart, and witty. It is a reimagining of Jane Eyre, wherein Jane happens to be a serial killer (“Reader, I murdered him.”).  I never particularly liked Jane Eyre, to be honest. Maybe I have been waiting for this iteration.


Moving with books

I try to pack my books almost blindly, so that the eye does not stop and the mind does not all of a sudden decide that this particular book is the one I should be reading right now, only to repeat the same sequence with the next book. I pack too quickly and spend the next two weeks staring at columns of identical boxes, forgetting about what’s inside.

As I unpack, I am crippled by being unable to decide which genre goes where. For the first time in my life there are too many bookshelves and not enough books. I joke to a coworker that it’s only a matter of time. I have built-in bookshelves that require a ladder to reach the top level. I feel like Giles when I do that.

I get out all the fiction from A to G, but then I find that one stray Louise Erdrich and have to shift everything all over again. And then there is a gap. Where did H-L go? In some box that was shoved under five other boxes, of course. It does not help that past me decided not to label most boxes. One box is labeled helpfully with just ‘books’. Thanks, past me.

I have a bag of ARCs I didn’t want to move and just shoved them under my desk at work. I don’t even remember what’s in there. I guess I’ll find out when I bring them home today.

I can finally start reading again.

Readings: Vowell, Liu

Personal kerfuffle in my life still has not settled, and so there was little time for reading and writing, and even things like Twitter and other social interaction have fallen by the wayside. I need this month to be over, out like a lamb or however it would like to go.

I have re-read Sarah Vowell’s Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. Rather, I re-listened to it, because her audiobooks are narrated by herself and a crew of various star guests (like Nick Offerman as George Washington), which makes them more like audio play productions. It is excellent.

three bodyOther reads were on the speculative fiction side, the first one being Third Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu. It got a lot of buzz and love last year, but it happened during the time when I briefly fell out of love with hard sci-fi. Third Body Problem reads like science fiction from the Golden Age, eager to cram all of the science and ideas inside. It reads stilted, emotions plainly explained, all character motivations delineated, everything over-described. And therein lies my beef with Third Body Problem. It’s not that I need a pure ‘show don’t tell’ approach, but I need my science fiction to be more of a novel and less of a guidebook. I don’t think it’s translation. Perhaps this is just Cixin Liu’s style. Sadly, I will never know, Chinese being one of languages I am not going to master in this lifetime.

And yet it is not a terrible book. In fact, it is rather smart in its ideas and connections. I wanted to keep reading despite being annoyed by the style, and I do not regret finishing it (that’s the kind of blurb you want for your novel, ‘did not regret finishing’). I might even read the second one (The Dark Forest), if only to see how different it is with a different translator.

And now I am off to finish Rob Spillman’s memoir, All Tomorrow’s Parties, a book that feels familiar even though his life is quite different from mine. Next after that, Joe Hill’s Fireman, out in May. Quite excited about this one.

Readings: Olivia Laing on loneliness

I am about to move out of the house I share with three other people into a place where it’s going to be just me. I am excited at the prospect but also fearful because for the first time in my life it occurred to me that I might become lonely. In a way, it’s a strange question for me to ask because I am introverted and misanthropic, and normally go out of my way to avoid most human interactions. This fear of lonesomeness is probably due more to the fact that my friend is moving away, and due to misanthropic introversion mentioned above, I don’t have a lot of friends.

I should not lump solitude with loneliness because, as Olivia Laing points out in her new book, The Lonely City, one can be lonely even when surrounded by humans. In fact, perhaps the loneliest time in my life was not when I was surrounded by rice paddies in rural Japan, but when I lived in New York. It’s the reason I picked up Laing’s book. In it, she documents her own loneliness in NYC, and also looks at loneliness through lives of several artists, including Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger.

lonelycityThe Lonely City received a nice review from NPR, although they thought it was beautiful but rather oppressive and well, lonely. It is, perhaps, not the most uplifting book, but it is not depressing per se. It is mostly because the lives of artists Laing chooses to profile are not exactly brimming with happiness and cheer. Wojnarowicz’s life in particular seems so brutal that it’s amazing he survived long enough to make art. Her chapters on his life and the AIDS crisis the most heartbreaking and poignant part of the book. Darger’s life is largely unknown (although Laing gets access to his diary), but his paintings are so deeply disturbing that one can’t help but imagine something awful either in his circumstances or his personality.

As I read on, I could see what the NPR reviewer was getting at. As one goes through these lonely lies, one forgets what ties all these biographical pieces together except for a certain oppressive aesthetic. Everything is dull and gray. Humans cannot connect and instead, live in mental glass cubes with no exits.

Laing’s own struggles with loneliness are there as well, but what I didn’t expect to find in this book were her observations about her own gender, that she felt ‘more like a boy, a gay boy’, or perhaps a gender that was somewhere in the center of the spectrum. It always fascinates me how people come to realize that they are perhaps trans, since it happened to me so late in life. I did not expect this piece, but in hindsight it is relevant to the topic because of its connection to being an outsider, feeling not fitting into into neat boxes, and possibly feeling guilty as a result.

I don’t think I had a deeper insight into loneliness after finishing this book, but I discovered lives of artists about whom I did not particularly care before, and found them fascinating. I barely knew who Wojnarowicz was (there was a biography of his a couple of years ago that briefly crossed my vision, but I did not pick it up), and I did not really care about Warhol despite having a print of his art in my room, left behind by some previous tenant. I rediscovered Peter Hujar, whose ‘Orgasmic Man’ photo is on the cover of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. The Lonely City is definitely a book that made my life richer and gave me a lot of new reading paths.


Readings: Lavie Tidhar

manliesI could tell you that A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar is a pulpy and visceral alternate history noir revenge fantasy, but no blurb can adequately describe what this book is. You can’t talk about it without spoilers, and I pity the person who had to do the blurb on the inside cover. It is vague and it’s vague on purpose. A bitter private detective is living in a world where Hitler’s party is no more, Germany is taken over by Communists, and Nazis are fleeing to England. In another world and time, a man in Auschwitz is dreaming of the world where a bitter private detective is living in a world where Hitler’s party is no more, and Nazis are fleeing to England. With me so far? The man dreaming happens to be a former writer of shund, which in prewar Yiddish theatre was considered to be cheap melodrama, trashy and vulgar. And so the world he dreams of is narrated in the manner of shund, with all the viscerality and vulgarity that it implies.

Perhaps A Man Lies Dreaming can best be described in its own words:

But to answer your question, to write of this Holocaust is to shout and scream, to tear and spit, let words fall like bloodied rain on the page; not with cold detachment but with fire and pain, in the language of shund, the language of shit and piss and puke, of pulp, a language of torrid covers and lurid emotions, of fantasy: this is an alien planet, Levi. This is Planet Auschwitz.

This pulpy quality might trick the reader into thinking that this is merely a noir/alternate history one reads in an afternoon and forgets the next day. This particular illusion is dispelled quickly as one gets deeper into the novel and sees layers and layers of symbolism within. It is worth reading the historical note at the end to get the full picture of how well-researched and intricate this novel is.

I find it both difficult and easy to recommend it. It is difficult because A Man Lies Dreaming is not a light book. It has plenty of R- and X-rated stuff inside. It is easy because it’s one of the most intense books I’ve read (at one point I told my friend that if I didn’t finish it in two days, my head would probably explode), and it will stay with me for a long time.

It’s been a solid week of amazing historical genre-bending fiction so far, which makes the task of choosing my next book victim quite difficult. The bar is really high.


Readings: Álvaro Enrigue

Alvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death is one of the strangest and best books I’ve ever read. It is a book from which I need to recover. The urge to go on vacation just so I can digest is quite strong.

The book takes place during a single tennis game. It’s not even, strictly speaking, tennis, but pallacorda, the original tennis, as it were. It is only somewhat similar to the tennis we know now. Don’t worry, you will find out more if you read the book (and you might find yourself on the internets way past your bedtime looking up things like jeu à dedans court design even if you care not at all about tennis or its origins).

suddendeathThis might sound boring, except you get so caught up in Enrigue’s masterful blow-by-blow commentary that you are sucked into the book before you know it. Besides, consider that the tennis game in question is the game between Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. They are also doing it with a ball made with Anne Boleyn’s hair (shorn off her head before she lost it to the sword). But how did they come to possess such a thing and why are they playing at all? They both seem to be dreadfully hungover and not at all in the mood.

To tell you this, Enrigue takes you on a dizzying tour of what seems like an impossible array of subjects: history of tennis and art, succession of Popes and cardinals, colonization of the Americas, to name just a few. At times it turns meta and breaks the fourth wall in a manner that should feel jarring, yet you go with it. The book is a mad mix of breathtaking game scenes, history bits, quotes, some well-done smut, and even a film script. At times, it made my head spin as it switched from the game court to Central America to Spain to Rome and back to the court. It made me want to learn, to create, to finally learn Spanish for the first time in my life (amazingly, I never expressed any interest in doing so and mostly stuck to languages nobody speaks). It is possibly the most alive and physical book I have ever read.

At one point, the book refers to the scene in Don Quixote where Altisidora has a vision of devils playing with rackets of fire, using bad books as balls. Sudden Death is definitely one of the books that is never going to be subjected to such treatment in the devils’ tennis court.